MLA Ezzard Miller: Keep private land private

Specific amendments proposed to National Conservation Bill

Private land should remain private, North Side legislator Ezzard Miller declared Wednesday night at a public meeting about the bill for a National Conservation Law. 

Mr. Miller said the people of North Side have always wanted protected areas on crown land and conservation areas on their land. 

Environment minister Wayne Panton replied, “That’s what the law intends.” 

Mr. Miller retorted, “But that’s not what the law says.” 

He suggested a specific amendment to the bill to make the matter clear.  

Summarizing the concerns of the 20 other people at the Craddock Ebanks Civic Centre, plus the concerns of residents with whom he has discussed the bill in recent days, Mr. Miller made specific proposals for amendments and indicated he had many more. 

Government is planning on introducing the bill Dec. 11, after 15 years of debate and discussions. The bill aims to “protect and conserve endangered wildlife and their habitats.” 

Also discussed were the definitions of specific words in the bill, such as “acquire” as in acquisition of land; and “is liable” in the penalty section. 

The first amendment he proposed was to section 9 (4), having to do with land that is not Crown land but which is nominated to be a protected area. The bill presently offers two alternatives: that the National Conservation Council would determine whether to recommend to Cabinet that the land be acquired by the Crown and a protected area order be made; or a conservation agreement be made with the proprietor of the area. 

Mr. Miller proposed deleting the reference to “acquired” so that the subsection would read: “[I]f the area is not Crown land, a conservation agreement be made with the proprietor of the area.”  

Mr. Panton indicated that this change could be considered. 

The word “acquire” was discussed for some considerable time, with members of the audience speaking about the kind of acquisition they were familiar with – compulsory acquisition, as in government acquiring the land if the owner doesn’t want to sell it. 

Mr. Panton said acquisition referred to the completed process, the point at which a certificate of title changes hands. He asked if people would be satisfied if the word “purchase” were used instead of “acquire.” One woman suggested it could be “acquisition by mutual agreement.”  

The meeting, which lasted a little more than three hours, focused on issues arising from the conservation bill, with people in attendance referring to copies of the bill. One exchange, however, did emphasize personalities, when Mr. Panton referred to a Nov. 20 meeting to which MLAs were invited for a presentation of the bill. .Mr. Panton said he had asked for input afterward. His recollection of Mr. Miller’s response was different from Mr. Miller’s. 

The minister recalled Mr. Miller saying his comments were too numerous and he didn’t have time and he wasn’t prepared to tell them to the gathering.  

Mr. Miller said he had told Mr. Panton he was not prepared to talk on Nov. 20. “I practice participatory democracy,” he said Wednesday night, referring to his standard practice of bringing bills to his constituents in public meetings, but not getting a copy of the bill in time to do so. 

Mr. Panton said he knew Mr. Miller preferred to have an audience. 

He indicated that the two representatives did not have to continue the back-and-forth remarks and they were friends. 

Mr. Miller replied, “I’m not too sure, after tonight.” 

Those in attendance also asked about possible conflicts of interest for members of the conservation council, especially when it came to environmental impact assessments. Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie pointed to provisions in Schedule 2 dealing with the question and Mr. Panton pointed out that the Standards of Public Life Bill will also address the matter. 

On man asked what would happen if someone owns a 250-acre parcel and one acre is considered a critical habitat. Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie assured him that the critical area had to be defined and the whole parcel would not be affected.  

The penalty section of the law came under scrutiny because it states that a person who commits an offence under the law “is liable on conviction to a fine of five hundred thousand dollars or to imprisonment for a term of four years or both.” 

Mr. Miller said the wording should be “a fine up to $500,000” or imprisonment “up to four years”. Mr. Panton and Director of the Department of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie said they had received the same answer from the attorney general and from the legal draftsman – that “liable” and “up to” meant the same thing and that was the drafting language. 

Mr. Miller submitted that legislators have a responsibility to pass legislation that people can understand clearly. 

He then raised a question about section 32 (2). It states that where a person has possession of a specimen or natural resource in a protected area, “he shall be deemed, unless he proves otherwise, to have taken it within that area.” He argued that this was reversing the burden of proof and it should be the authority to prove that the item was taken within that area. He cited boaters passing through a marine park as an example. 

Mr. Panton indicated that common sense would have to be used and the Legal Department would look carefully at any such allegation. 

Other changes Mr. Miller asked for included notices to adjoining land owners in addition to notices that are required to be published in a newspaper. Mr. Panton said he had no objection in principle. 

Mr. Miller also asked for the deadline for written objections or representations be increased from 28 days to 90 days. He pointed out what at least two other people in the audience has asked about – that a lot of land in North Side is “estate land” – large parcels in which a lot of people are involved, some of whom may live overseas. 

He reiterated his original position: “I don’t want you to protect any private land by acquiring it.” 

After the meeting, Mr. Miller referred to a radio program on which he was to have discussed the bill with Mr. Panton and Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie. He said he would not be taking part. 

Contacted on Thursday morning, Mr. Miller said his reason was not because of any animosity. “Based on their reactions to my suggestions last night, I don’t think they’re going to change,” he explained. The long-serving lawmaker said any debate or discussion would not be productive: he felt his time would be better spent speaking to his constituents and preparing for debate in the legislature next week. 

The first amendment Mr. Miller proposed was to section 9 (4), having to do with land that is not crown land but which is nominated to be a protected area.  

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North Side MLA Ezzard Miller shares his concerns. – Photo: Carol Winker

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North Side MLA Ezzard Miller shares his concerns. – Photo: Carol Winker Dec.4 2013
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2 COMMENTS

  1. Key Changes and clarifications needed to the NCL Bill:

    I agree with Ezzard. He is right. The ministers are saying one thing to the public, while the fine print says something totally different. It MUST BE consistent. Put the writing where your mouth is! Make the bill consistent with what the ministers are claiming is the intent of the Bill!!

    A major problem with the current draft of the National Conservation bill is that it Is not consistent with public statements made by Wayne Panton the Environmental Minister, nor Carla Reid the chairperson of the National Trust, who are pushing and lobbying for this bill. If it was consistent, then the Bill might actually be Ok to approve. But, very disturbingly, misleading statements are being made to the (trusting) public. Therefore, a large segment of the population is now deceived into believing that this bill is acceptable as drafted, when the NC Bill says something quiet different in its print than is being publicly stated.
    Both Wayne Panton and Carla Reid state categorically that the bill will not affect private landowners, or their property.

    Mr. Panton: There is absolutely nothing in the proposed legislation that lets government take people’s land to make protected areas, not even for private land adjoining government land that gets made into a protected area NONE. There is absolutely nothing in this bill that gives government the power to prohibit people from altering, developing or using their own land.

    Ms Reid: the bill does not impose any restrictions on private land owners nor does it grant the government any power to interfere with land held privately. On the contrary, the bill is designed to protect environmentally significant Crown land. In fact, under the bill, any participation by private land owners to conserve their land is completely voluntary and not an obligation.

    But, sections of the bill address environmental matters regardless of who owns the land.

    (1) The text of the bill itself appears to empower the National Conservation Council to create and enforce species management plans that could impede or stop development, regardless of who owns the land.
    While a protected area would by definition be land under the Crown’s control, a critical habitat would be defined by a species management plan and could include private land.

    (2) The Council can force a private landowner to provide a performance bond or an escrow account in any amount in connection with a mandatory environmental impact assessment before the property is developed. If the Council wishes to stop a project altogether, it can set the bond or escrow amount higher than the development value of the property. The cost of the environmental impact assessment, which must be borne by the landowner, can itself be so exorbitant that it could render the project financially unviable.

    Every Caymanian, and every landowner of Cayman lands, should insist that the National Conservation Bill as drafted must be changed in key areas. These changes would also make the NCL consistent with those public statements made by Minister and National Trust. Those minimal changes (or clarifications) to the draft are:
    (1) Insert Mr. Panton’s own statement from his letter to the Caymanian Compass into the bill: There is absolutely nothing in the proposed legislation that lets government take people’s land to make protected areas, not even for private land adjoining government land that gets made into a protected area NONE. There is absolutely nothing in this bill that gives government the power to prohibit people from altering, developing or using their own land.
    (2) Insert Ms Reid’s statement into the bill the bill does not impose any restrictions on private land owners nor does it grant the government any power to interfere with land held privately. On the contrary, the bill is designed to protect environmentally significant Crown land. In fact, under the bill, any participation by private land owners to conserve their land is completely voluntary and not an obligation.

    (3) Make clear statements within the Bill that the new laws and regulations only affect Crown Land, and Not private land. It is acceptable to provide the government the ability and funds to try/attempt to purchase private land for environmental protection, but NOT forcibly. If the landowner does not want to then he/she should NOT be forced to sell.
    (4) Make it clear that critical habitats apply only to Crown Land, EXCEPT if the land owner in each instance voluntarily, at own free will, agrees otherwise.
    This law AS PRESENTLY WRITTEN is going to majorly backfire. Without the above assurances in place written INTO the bill, Private landowners will be driven into economic fear of uncertainty about their properties and will suddenly be motivated to go out and in secrecy destroy and kill anything on their land that they are afraid could cause the National Conservation Committee to prevent them from using or developing their land. This would have the exact OPPOSITE effect of what environmentalists are trying to achieve!

    Additionally, the NCL if passed in the poor version as currently drafted will scare off any serious developers and property investors, instantly devaluate the country’s crucial estate market, as well as future development, and send the country into major (perhaps Irreversible) recession with more people out of work, and resulting escalating and uncontrollable crime. Changing the drafted version of the NCL in the key areas listed above could prevent the country from major devastation.

    Every government in the last decade realized that going forward with this bill would be a major economic disaster for the nation. And the country has since gone through an even more difficult economic time. This is certainly not a good time to be even talking about this Bill. This is a very sensitive economic time and we depend on investment, development, the real estate market, and job growth.

    But, the new government is determined to prove to the public that it is an improved government over the last one, and therefore is trying to show in all possible ways that it can make changes. Unfortunately in this case, it is overly naive to think this change is going to go down well for our country. Government has the responsibility for the future of our nation to ensure that IF it actually goes forward with this Bill, as it has stated that it will, that it at minimum, it must make the few key changes and absolute clarifications to the drafted bill (as outlined above) – which will make it consistent with what the Ministers are claiming and stating publicly is the intent of the bill.

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  2. Can you please give me Ezzard Miller’s email address as i completely agree with him and want to give him some more info for his debate on the bill in the LA. Thanks

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